Toad in the Hole

March 11, 2005

The Complexities of Chow

The other day, Joe and I took a stroll in Hayward Regional Shoreline park. I had an ulterior motive -- wanted a look at the plantings in an apartment complex near there, as I was doing a consult with people rehabbing it -- and it was also the one place we thought of where we could go on this first sunny weekend in forever that wouldn't be mobbed and muddy. The backyard has my lifetime dose of mud; don't need more.

Well, it's Spring there too. The barnswallows are back, zipping and chattering around the visitors' center building. The avocets have their pale-bricky head coloring; the ruddy drakes are getting ruddy and their bills are turning that improbable pale blue, all at wildly various rates. Some black-bellied plovers have black bellies. There were gaggles of least sandpipers nearly invisible in the mud and pickleweed; curlews and godwits hunting in loose pairs and foursomes.

Right at the start of the trail along the dikes, a great egret was highstepping, hunting in the mix of grasses, scrub, and pickleweed on the opposite bank. Ignored us completely. Looked here, looked there, and then Zap! Flash of snaky neck and big sharp bill into the tangle.

Came up with a song sparrow struggling, held by one wing and a bit of body in the big scissor bill. The egret juggled the sparrow a bit, got it aligned headfirst; little smudgy pinfeathers and blood started staining the bill's sides. A few more shakes and more positioning, and the egret gulped the sparrow -- clearly still alive and struggling -- down whole. We could see its progress down the long throat. It was clearly not as easy as swallowing a slick fish, but down it went.

Then the egret walked down to the channel, washed the blood and feathers off its bill, and gulped down water as a chaser; we could see the throat moving for that too. Apparently egrets, like pigeons, can swallow water with their heads down.

Immediately it strode back up the bank to resume its hunt.

There were song sparrows and savanna sparrows and marsh wrens singing in their places all along the trail; I suppose the pickings were easy, though this one had been grabbed from some hiding place, not the top of a bush or grass stem.

We've seen birds swallowing -- or trying to swallow -- some unlikely things over the years. A gull in Golden Gate Park, with one arm of a largish red starfisn in its mouth and the other four arms spread out in front of it, walking around looking rather perplexed. I suppose the star's little sucker feet had hold of the gull's tongue, because when we backtracked a couple of hours later, there they were still in exactly the same fix. I do have to wonder how that turned out.

A great blue heron at Arrowhead Marsh grabbed a mouse from the marshgrass twenty feet from us. We turned to see it because we heard the frantic skritching of the mouse's feet on the heron's bill. The mouse kept struggling furiously, squeaking, scratching, and the heron turned, walked to the water, and held the mouse under till it stopped, then swallowed it. That made us rethink just which "behaviors" are hardwired -- it certainly wouldn't have worked to drown what I think of as a heron's usual prey, fish.

Last month we were down at the Berkeley Marina, looking for some white-fronted geese in puddle-ponds where marsh restoration has been started. At the far edge of the pond with the geese was a GBH, with a very large dead rat. I mean, this puppy was well-fed -- about the size of a good hefty possum at least. The GBH had the rat in its bill and was having a problem with the next step. It kept dunking the rat vigorously in the water -- not holding it under, just sloshing it around -- and repositioning it, but it was clearly just too large. But the heron wouldn't give up, and who can blame it: "If I get this thing down I wont have to hunt for days!" We watched for a good 20 to 30 minutes before we gave up.

Owning a snake has raised my consciousness about this problem, the one of having to swallow your dinner in one piece. It's amazing to watch, even in a critter who has distensible jaws. Shep's jaws separate two ways: at the jaw hinge, and in the middle of the bottom jaw. Right now, he's not swallowing anything because, evidently, it's the season for a young adult male ball python to get all lovelorn and pace around for hours, looking for a snaky date. I never particularly wanted to parent an adolescent, and look what I went and did.

I fed Emma's baby hognose snake once, and the silly thing grabbed the thawed pinky sideways and refused to let go or reposition it. She swallowed the thing still aimed laterally -- what a face! You know that photo of a dog with three tennis balls in its mouth? Like that.

At the Marina, earlier that month, we watched a raven eat a pocket gopher. Raven perched on top of a sign and wedged the gopher into the open top of the post, then tore bits off. Egrets and herons certainly have cutlery analogous to a raven's, but I guess they can't or won't use it the same way. And there, I guess, is the hardwired part.

Or so I'll suppose until I see a heron working on its meal like a Benihana table chef.

Posted at March 11, 2005 02:33 AM


I still remember one day watching a bird eat grapes that had fallen off of vendors tables at the flea market in Santa Cruz. It was one of those ugly birds that looks like a starling that's so common around there. I forget what Chris says they are. I remember they have very striking little eyes.

Anyhow, this bird would hold the grape down with its foot, peel the skin off with its beak and eat the pulp.

I thought it seemed strange.

Posted by: craig at March 16, 2005 10:57 AM